By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 21, 2010; B3
In the latest attempt to fix a dysfunctional federal retiree program, Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry announced Wednesday yet another overhaul of a system that leaves retirees waiting months for their checks.
Berry said he is adding 80 people to a retirement-processing staff of 130 in hopes of making a significant cut in the 138 days, almost five months, it takes on average to process claims.
"We want to do everything we can to put as much of their money - at the end of the day we have to remember this is their money - in their pockets as quickly as we can," he said.
Staffing cutbacks at OPM, similar to those other agencies experienced during the Bush administration, are among the reasons for the long waits. The 130 employees handled 98,000 claims in fiscal 2010, a load just slightly lower than 178 workers were responsible for in 2006, according to OPM.
Berry said 40 new staff members would be hired and another 40 would be transferred from other OPM offices for six months to help deal with the backlog. That office will focus only on retirement claims and not on health and insurance issues, as was done in the past. The retirement-processing staff has a new leader, Bill Zielinski, a former Social Security Administration official, who is OPM's associate director for retirement services.
"We are hiring those people as we speak, and we will be training them and getting them on the front lines as quickly as we can," Berry said. "That being said, our timeline continues to worsen. . . . I recognize the hardship this poses to our retirees."
While they wait for OPM to determine what they are due, the agency provides retirees with partial checks. Berry said he has told agency officials "to maximize that partial payment, especially over the next 12 months, until we can resolve this backlog and get this behind us."
Berry said previous reports by OPM put the backlog at 40 or 45 days. That was bogus. "I do not know how those numbers were figured out," Berry said. "It has no bearing in reality that we can find. . . . This is far worse than what has been recorded."
He added, "We need to get this down to a much more reasonable level."
Berry did not set a goal for what that reasonable level might be but said "it's got to be a lot better" than what is now.
The system is so slow because OPM needs complete records to process retirement claims, and that's not as simple as it sounds. Federal workers often work for various agencies during their careers. Some have military service, which must be counted. Divorce settlements can complicate matters.
The system is not automated, so all of this generates lots of paper. Details must be checked. If information is missing, it slows the process. It's labor intensive.
"It's time consuming," said David B. Snell, benefits director for the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association.
Snell wants to see an automated system that captures employees' retirement related information from the time they begin working for the government, sends it to OPM for processing and quickly determines the correct payment amount at the time workers leave federal service.
That certainly is not what happens now, nor will that be the case any time soon.
There is "minimal IT hope on the horizon," Berry said.
Berry made no attempt to sugarcoat the situation.
"There is no question that we face a lot of problems and that there has been an ugly history in our retirement processing area," he told reporters.
That history includes $200 million in largely failed attempts, over more than 20 years, to computerize a federal retirement system that largely relies on pieces of paper, said Matthew Perry, OPM chief information officer.
OPM began an automated processing program in 1987. "Despite 8 years of work, the program was at high risk of failure," said a Government Accountability Office report.
The second effort, from 1997 to 2001, also failed, though like the other attempts, some elements of that program were useful, Perry said.
The latest debacle was a 10-year contract OPM canceled two years ago for a program it called RetireEZ. Uncle Sam paid out $21 million before he pulled the plug.
Berry said OPM will continue attempts to automate the system, but will do so incrementally, rather than attempting to remake the entire system at once.
"I don't want to repeat the mistakes of the past," he said.